Databases and Digital Natives for the Western Argolid

The last few days here in the Western Argolid have been punctuated by database development in the lead up to our first days in the field next week. I’m a bit terrified at the prospect of managing data for five field teams walking 20-30 units a day and producing 500-800 units per week. In a single week, the Western Argolid Regional Project will produce as much data as as my previous project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project produced over all their field seasons and by the end of the season we’ll have produced more data than the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey produced in its three-seaon run. Lots of data.

More and more projects are turning the data management load over to a dedicated IT person or even a team of IT people who set up a local server, develop an integrated data management plan, and supervise the initial collection and processing of data. We don’t have a dedicated IT guy. We have me and a GIS person and a couple of digitally savvy co-directors, and a good group of team leaders. 

This situation has led to some particular decisions in our digital workflow. So, in this context, I can offer three observations:

1. Paper Forms. We’re sticking with paper forms in the field for a few reasons. First, we have no resources to devote to developing a tablet application for digital data capture. This means that we don’t have the staff to develop, maintain, or trouble shoot it. And we don’t have the resources for the actual hardware. So, we’re going to stick with paper forms.

Paper forms do have some advantages beyond being cheaper and easier to implement. They also ensure that there is an intermediate stage between data collection in the field and data entry into our field databases. This step allows us to vet our data at an intermediate stage and to familiarize ourselves with the data as its arriving from the field. This is possible with a digital field collection, but necessary with paper forms. We also enjoy the flexibility of paper forms. This will be our first year in the field and while we’re reasonably confident that our form and database will work to represent the archaeology of our region, we also have to be flexible and a paper form is a very flexible tool which can be easily edited on the fly to accommodate unforeseen circumstances.   

2. Decentralized Databases. Since we don’t have a server here and we don’t have the skills or the resources to set one up, we have to run multiple versions of the database in an unsynchronized way and then integrate them periodically throughout the season. 

This is less than optimal on a number of levels, but it does bring the our team leaders and project directors all into the data management process. It also pushed us to keep our databases simple. These databases are largely flat tables without complex one-to-many relationships. This will not only facilitate our regular merging of multiple copies of the database, but also makes it easier to integrate with our GIS.

3. Changing Student Skills. When I was at the American School of Classical Studies as faculty in 2007-2008, Jack Davis, then director, and I (and I believe a Skyped Sebastian Heath) did a short seminar on GIS one afternoon. At the start of the seminar, we asked the assembled graduate students from some of the best programs in the U.S. who had GIS experience. I think only one students raised their hand. 

This summer, we are joined by a great gaggle of graduate students who will run our field teams and ALL of them have experience using GIS. These students are capable of performing almost all the daily GIS-related tasks for an intensive survey and some more complex analysis on landscape data. We have a dedicated GIS person, but she’ll serve more as a coordinator than a dedicated specialist.

The level of digital competence among the students also allowed me to beta-test my database with them and they were able to provide remarkably focused and knowledgeable feedback. They not only understood the basic function of the database, but showed a clear understanding of the structure of the data.

Times are changing in Mediterranean archaeology!

A year or so ago, I gave a paper describing the uneven flow of digital technology in the world of Mediterranean archaeology. I argued – in a roundabout way – that we’re no longer in a world where archaeologists are skeptical of the value of using sophisticated digital tools, but that resources tend to dictate access to technical skills and the necessary hardware to embrace digital technology to the fullest. 

WARP does not have the resources this season to leverage every tool in the digital archaeology tool kit, but we do have the resources to create a cohesive plan that is consistent with best practices. I’ll let you know how things go as the season progresses. Follow us on the Twitters and Facebook at the #WestARP hashtag.

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